People often ask me why we don't age more of our wine in barrels, well the answer is two, maybe three
fold. First and foremost, I am not a fan of oak. There's nothing worse that tasting a young wine that has lots of personality and depth, only to be ruined by a winemaker that decided it needed a good dash of oak on the finish. Ugh. I much prefer to taste a pure expression of the fruit and terroir of a wine than the toast and tannins of a certain cooperage.
Secondly though and most importantly, I really don't like dealing with barrels. In the tiny space we have to keep our 4 barrels, it's nearly impossible to move around. We aren't equipped with the latest in barrel management programs, stacking systems or cleaning implements. So usually it means that when the barrels need to be racked, emptied or cleaned, I spend a couple of days struggling to get the job done. The barrels are located on the top of some ancient concrete vats that we don't use, about 15 feet above the level of the main part of the winery. Think of it as a mezzanine. We have a big ladder to climb up to access this level, but no way of getting the pump up there. This means that two hoses have to be linked together because the longest one is about 6 inches too short to reach!! When we purchased our pump there was a remote control option but since we have such a small area to worked in, it didn't seem necessary. Now I wish we had gotten it! Picture this: the hoses and barrel filling apparatus all attached and ready to go, tank valve open, I am 15 feet below the barrels with no way to check the level of the wine from down there. So I start the pump let it go for a few minutes, then have to climb up to see where the level is, climb back down, turn the pump back on, and so on and so forth. Until the moment when the barrel fills up, at this point I've either stopped before it was entirely full and will finish filling it with a funnel and buckets of wine, or I didn't stop in time and the wine rushes out in a veritable geyser, hitting the ceiling and running down the walls. Not delightful.
Then there's emptying and cleaning them, ugh, trying (usually alone) to empty all of the wine and lees out of them is nearly impossible and a complete exercise in frustration. See those planks in the background of the above picture? I was trying to roll the barrel up onto some planks and then roll in onto a tub that would catch the remainder of the wine left in the barrel, only to realize that there wasn't enough left in there to make it worth my while. Then, there's cleaning them, I'm not even going to get into that one!!
Barrel maintenance is not my favorite activity in the winery. So, you ask, why have any at all? Well
that's a good question. Now in our 5th year we've been making just one wine each year, which I think is the right thing for a winery of our size, but we want to experiment a bit, to see what the effects of longer aging can be on our wine, to see if the slow oxygen exchange that happens in barrels can benefit a small percentage of our wine which will then either be blended back into the main wine, or maybe bottled seperately, we'll see. So, I just ordered and received two more barrels this week. One year old Burgundy barrels from Damy that were reconditioned at the tonnellerie (cooperage), and look like new. The barrel we used for our white was also from Damy, and I love the quality of the oak. Our 2009 syrah is just beautiful, so I will be curious to see how a small amount of it will evolve in oak.
I'm not looking forward to dealing with those barrels though!!!